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Friday, January 20, 2017

Triple Horror Reviews: Ilawod, Darkroom, Mang Kepweng Returns

After directing a slew of successful romcoms, Dan Villegas forays into the realm of horror with this latest offering. Ilawod on the surface seems like a conventional horror movie, it does touch on some interesting things along the way.

Its primary antagonist is a water elemental with a malevolent streak. Displaced from the rural setting that it is accustomed to, the titular Ilawod is thrust into the claustrophobic spaces of the city, where it terrorizes a modern Filipino family.

Whenever Asian Horror places its story in the context of family, the family often suffers from a certain kind of dysfunction. For example, Hideo Nakata's Dark Water (2001), which coincidentally also features a water spirit, stars a single mother and her daughter; single mothers are also the subject of Nakata's seminal film Ring (1998), and a broken family is the cause of the titular Grudge (2003, among others).

In this case, however, the family doesn't really seem to have problems on the surface: it looks like a perfectly normal, complete family. What the Ilawod does in this context is amplify the family's own personal neuroses, with the only exception of the youngest, most innocent member of the family. There's a backstory to the family in Ilawod that we only get glimpses of; and the entity uses that to her advantage.

The Ilawod herself exudes a very feminine vibe - and throughout the movie the male characters are unable to stop her or are unable to resist her temptations. The most anyone could do in the movie to stop the Ilawod is to drive it away temporarily. This proves to be a large source of problems for the head of the family (played by Ian Veneracion,) whose pride becomes folly*. If you go with this particular interpretation, it's a challenge to the role of the male or father in today's society: just as much as folktales change and evolve from past to present, so does the definition of 'family'.

While the horror aspect of the movie plays it rather safe, there's a lot in the execution of Ilawod that makes it a noteworthy local horror film and a promising start to 2017.

* then again, had Ian Veneracion's character swallowed his pride instead, there's no indication there would be any difference in the ending. But that's kind of missing the point that his authority as father and head of the family is severely undermined by the presence of the Ilawod.

Darkroom combines teen horror with found footage, perhaps one of the first of its kind in the country. It's directed by Pedring Lopez, who helmed 2015's Nilalang, a film that, despite its shortcomings, had a lot of imagination behind it.

The film begins with an exorcism that ends rather abruptly (is it a coincidence it was filmed a day before the EDSA revolution? In some interpretations of the film, perhaps not.) We then see a number of teens preparing for a visit to said house in the present day, fulfilling all sorts of horror cliches.

The first half of the film is rather mundane as the teens go about their respective activities. It's all boring on the surface. But if you look behind the lines, there's something different lurking behind the surface. As we know, inevitably, these people will meet grisly ends, the high point of most horror films of this subgenre. As such, this first half is self reflection on the sheer vapidity of some of these characters.

Found footage is a genre that really works within the selfie-obsessed, instagram-taking generation that these characters embody. These characters are concerned mostly about themselves. These are the sorts of kids that take selfies on Holocaust memorials, ignorant of the meaning behind the place. They ignore the atrocities of the past, thinking that these atrocities are of no consequence to them. Of course, that's hardly the case. As such, Darkroom can be viewed as a subtle critique of our current generation.

Once things get going (sadly, not for long enough) things get entertaining. There's a lot of blood and gore to satisfy a good number of horror fans, and although some of the horror moments aren't as effective as others, they're decent enough. (Bret Jackson being an excellent screamer with fantastic eyelashes really helps.) On the other hand, some scenes are a bit silly, and other scenes would have benefited more from implying rather than showing (something that found footage can do well.)

Darkroom is not perfect, but its a laudable first effort for the genre in local cinema.

pictured: probably a better movie.
Though it's more of a horror comedy (and the actual nature of the movie is even more of a mess than descriptions can allow), Mang Kepweng Returns will earn a place here for rather arbitrary reasons.

There's a scene in Mang Kepweng Returns that juxtaposes a funeral with gaudy spectacle. It's a joke that has a weird tone and isn't really funny. That's basically what this movie is in a nutshell.

The movie is based on a comic strip by Al Magat, who spawned two movie adaptations, Mang Kepweng (1979) and Mang Kepweng and Son (pictured, 1983) starring the late Chiquito. The original series is about the adventures and misadventures of a local faith healer, or albularyo, mixing comedy with supernatural elements. Admittedly I'm not a big fan of the brand of comedy in the original two films. It's the kind of "tito" humor that I kind of laugh along with during family get-togethers but would otherwise dismiss, but in the end I really don't mind either way.

Having said that, Mang Kepweng Returns takes this and applies the old MMFF formula to it - and by old MMFF I mean the braindead, pandering nonsense of MMFFs past. It comes as no surprise that this film was submitted to this year's MMFF and (rightly so, in my opinion,) rejected. Mang Kepweng Returns can be considered as spiritual sequel of sorts, where Mang Kepweng's son (also named Kepweng) inherits his father's bandana, the source of most of his powers.

The film doesn't really do a good job communicating this story. For one, the camerawork doesn't really suit the movie at all - it's a bit subtle, but the low angles, darkened lighting and at times handheld shots make this seem more like a gritty indie movie that a commercial horror comedy. The tone is a complete mess, and you really can't tell whether the film is taking things seriously or if everything's a joke. Seemingly important characters are put on a bus near the halfway point, only to reappear after a while for no reason.

The special effects range from not very good to halfway decent, including a computer generated original Mang Kepweng that reminds me of what ILM did with Rogue One, albeit with (probably) the budget of a few coins, some lint, and a bag of wet noodles. The film also makes references to the Chiquito adaptations, even getting a few jokes here and there, as well as from Chiquito's other films: for example, one scene in particular is almost lifted straight from Chiquito's Estong Tutong (1983).

Mang Kepweng is a faith healer, yet the film treats him as more of a comic book superhero, which doesn't really suit him as a character. The ending scene where Kepweng fights a number of supernatural creatures in a boring fight scene seems to hammer down this point.

Mang Kepweng Returns is a frankenstein's monster of a movie that needs to be put down for its own good. It's the type of MMFF film that should have died years ago, but keeps on shambling like a zombie long after its insides have rotted away.

Thursday, January 12, 2017

Short Reviews Jan 2017: La La Land, Labs Kita, Okey Ka Lang?

Even from the very start of Damien Chazelle's La La Land, where a number of characters execute a sublimely choreographed number on the Los Angeles freeway, I knew I was in for a treat. Its first half, a whirlwind romance between two struggling artists, evokes images of Hollywood Musicals of ages past. It's a treatment Chazelle has tried before with his first film, Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench, recontextualizing the grand MGM musical into something grounded and contemporary.

These setpieces are staged with considerable panache, using clever blocking and camera movement to capture that old timey feel. Some setpieces are admittedly more effective than others, but nevertheless the overall effect is quite gratifying. Perhaps this bravado stems from the lessons learned from Chazelle's second film, Whiplash, a technical wonder in its own right. And boy, when this film gets it right, it nails it on the head.

And yet, as much as this film is a loving tribute to Old Hollywood and the pursuit of fame and stardom, it's also a deconstruction. As we get to the halfway point in the film, we find that the characters are trapped in their own 'La La Lands,' where the fantasy, idealism and escapism of a 'Classic Hollywood' plot gives way to pragmatism and a bit of cynicism as well. The questions it asks about the cost of living your dream mirrors his other films, but approaches the subject in different ways. The end result can be magical and profound, yet bittersweet at the same time. The film's final sequence, heartbreaking and exhilarating at the same time, contains the unadulterated exuberance that I sorely missed from Whiplash. And just for that, this film is one for the books.

As part of ABS-CBN's continued effort to remaster and restore their large collection of films, the UP Town Center is holding a retrospective of some of their classic films from January 11-15. One of the newly restored films in their collection is the 1998 film Labs Kita, Okey Ka Lang? starring the formidable duo of  Jolina Magdangal and Marvin Agustin.

Bujoy (Magdangal) and Ned (Agustin) have been friends since childhood. They obviously have feelings for each other but are unable to express said feelings. Eventually, they play matchmaker with each other, pairing the other with another person, in what has to be the highest level of friendzone I have ever seen.

It's interesting to see the Star Cinema Rom Com (tm?) in an earlier stage of its evolution, before the rise of hugot and other modern conventions of the form.  But even so, most of the recognizable traits of the formula are in place: both have their respective sidekicks, there's a dramatic turn in the final third of the film that brings about conflict, and the film ends with a dramatic chase scene and a relatively happy ending. While it's pretty much by the numbers, it's fun seeing actors as they were in the nineties before they moved on to headlining their own movies, such as Vhong Navarro and Meryll Soriano. There's also a nice (unintentional?) throwback to another romantic movie set in Baguio, Kung Mangarap Ka't Magising, whose star Hilda Koronel has a supporting role in this movie.

Watching the film gave me a sense of nostalgia for the nineties and my own teenage years. And although she isn't as active in showbiz anymore, it's undeniable that Jolina Magdangal has a significant impact on Filipino pop culture. I enjoyed Labs Kita, Okey Ka Lang? despite its faults, and it will probably be a source of quotable quotes for years to come.

Thursday, December 29, 2016

Present Confusion 2016 Rundown!

2016 IN A NUTSHELL
The end of the world year is upon us, and for a lot of people, 2016 can go fuck itself. For better or worse, 2016 was a year of change, not only in the film industry, but also the world. It will probably be a while before we see the lasting effects of this year on civilization as a whole, but until then, we keep on moving on, because that's probably the only thing we can do right now.

In lieu of the usual listicle I will be doing this best-of list in consolidated paragraphs instead. My choices will be highlighted in bold. Of course the usual subjectivity disclaimer applies, and if your film doesn't appear in my list, sucks to be you. (Just kidding, of course.)

Philippine Cinema Favorites in 2016: Shifting Paradigms

2016 in Philippine Cinema was an interesting year. From 2015, which has a number of really outstanding films, there were a lot of really good films in 2016, but not a lot of great films. As the year was nearing its final months I was still struggling to find a local film that really caught my attention. In the end I name six films that I really found notable this year. In no particular order, here they are.

The old stalwart of "indie" film fests, Cinemalaya, came back this year with a lineup of feature films, but most of the films felt safe. Even the shorts section, which usually offers a level of experimentation not seen in the feature films lacked this property. It's understandable for a festival that's testing the waters after a year of hibernation. The extra preparation time may have resulted in a less troublesome resource gathering process, but in terms of the movies' overall quality, the difference in output is quite negligible.

Out of Cinemalaya comes my first selection, Pamilya Ordinaryo, whose premise fits very much within what I usually expect with Cinemalaya. It shows us how even the most ordinary of families ends up exploited by entities higher up in the societal food chain. But it's so well done, it's hard not to give it some credit. If there's one thing that Cinemalaya can boast this year, it's a range of really outstanding lead performances, male or female. In this case, it's Ronwaldo Martin and Hasmine Killip who deliver the goods.

Speaking of great performances, there was one performance in particular that won praise in festivals abroad:  Jacklyn Jose in Brillante Mendoza's Ma'Rosa. Mendoza goes back to the social realist film that he does best, adding in a tinge of relevancy for good measure. However, like I said before, Ma'Rosa is not simply a film about the drug trade - it's about the economy of corruption that has taken root in our society, where lives and people become commodities.

And many films this year tackle deeply rooted societal cancers. Most notable in this subset of movies is Sheron Dayoc's Women of the Weeping River, about the trappings of deep seated mentalities and traditions that prove self destructive towards everyone involved. It's a deeply nuanced portrait of what happens with my brothers and sisters in the south, made even more relevant for me because, as a Muslim Filipino myself, this is a personal story as well.

Some societal cancers go away and are excised, but in my line of work, cancer tends to recur and metastasize - the internment of a certain dictator is evidence of that. People tend to forget quite easily, it seems, perhaps because hardship never touched them directly or they were favored in some way, or because of ignorance. On the other hand, there are people who remember, like the victims in Teng Mangansakan's Forbidden Memory. These days films like this are necessary, because unless we commit these memories to posterity, forces that seek to revise history to their own ends will succeed.

False messiahs like Marcos are actually quite abundant, preying on the gullibility of people and their propensity to seek hope. Another film that tackled this notion is one of three films released by Lav Diaz this year, Hele sa Hiwagang Hapis. Though his later film, Ang Babaeng Humayo, received the more prestigious prize, anad as far as Diaz's films go, this is not his best, I found myself gravitating towards Hele a bit more, because of the way it was made specifically for a local audience. There's something poetic in this film which his other two films do not have.

Let's move away from the doom and gloom of the year and move on to something a bit more positive. Film festivals in the Philippines came and went this year. Cinefilipino, Sinag Maynila and the FDCP's own World Premieres Film Festival had their share of films, but none of the films from their lineups really made me pay attention. QCinema continued with a quality lineup, but I found myself preferring last year's edition a bit more. This year's Cinema One film fest is probably this year's most adventurous, playing with different genres (and completely defying expectations of what a documentary should be.) Even then, I found myself wanting.

But surprisingly, (even shockingly) it is the revamped Metro Manila Film Festival, under the helm of the new FDCP, that really surprised me. I guess it's also partially due to low expectations coming in. The MMFF still has a long way to go, and issues from past iterations of the MMFF with respect to financial transparency need to be looked into, but at the very least, I think this is a step forward.

My favorite film from the fest (still ongoing, by the way,) is Baby Ruth Villarama's Sunday Beauty Queen. This film, along with Forbidden Memory, is part of one of 2016's triumphs - that of the documentary form, which is slowly emerging from under the shadow of its fictional narrative brothers. Sunday Beauty Queen is a celebration of the Filipino spirit, and an acknowledgement of the tragedy behind it, because these people have sacrificed a lot for the sake of their families.

Philippine Cinema Favorites in 2016: Honorable Mentions and Misfires

'Good, but not great' defined most of my year as far as local films are concerned. But of course tastes are subjective, and this year really gave us some gems. Here are the films that rank among my honorable mentions for 2016 (perhaps representing the lower 2/3 of a top 20 list if you look at it that way.)

Some of this year's noteworthy films are just plain gorgeous to look at, and I saw two differing aesthetics with regards to cinematography and production design. The first is large, picturesque views of the Philippines, perhaps best personified by Ice Idanan's Sakaling Hindi Makarating and Bagane Fiola's Baboy Halas. The second, beautifully shot, intimate frames of the spaces we live in, exemplified by Prime Cruz's Ang Manananggal sa Unit 23B and Malay Javier's Every Room is a Planet.

Horror movies figured in some way in the local scene, most notably Erik Matti's latest Seklusyon, which continued his exploration of power and faith. Some films went for the cliches and failed, such as Gino Santos' Lila. Others played with the genre to create something completely unique, such as Keith Deligero's Lily. But the top prize has to go to, of all things, a short film: Eduardo Dayao's If You Leave. While it does touch on similar concepts to his earlier Violator, it does not make the finished product any less scary.

Speaking of shorts, there were a lot of interesting short films this year, and a lot of conventional fluff. My favorite is probably Fish out of Water, which talks about mixed children and their struggle to find a place in a society that tends to alienate them.

Gender issues had its share of the spotlight this year; however, at the same time, independent productions had their share of misses, such as Cinefilipino's Straight to the Heart. But this year had a gem in the form of MMFF's Die Beautiful, buoyed by Paolo Ballesteros's performance and Jun Lana's solid directorial hand. Even in mainstream productions, such issues were starting to reach the surface, seen in movies like Lana's Bakit Ang Lahat ng Guwapo may Boyfriend? and Jason Laxamana's The Third Party.

And it's a good 2016 for director Laxamana as we include in this list two movies that he was involved in. The first one, 2 Cool 2 Be 4Gotten, a collaboration with filmmaker Petersen Vargas, is wistful at times and shows mastery of the cinematic language (impressive for a first time filmmaker). The other, Mercury is Mine, is carried by an impressive performance by, of all people, Pokwang, and its story and themes have proven to be haunting long after seeing it. With productions both mainstream and independent under his belt this year he's on a bit of a roll.

Other notable films of the year include the clash of old and new, whether it be tied to something more mythopoetic, like Derrick Cabrido's Tuos, or to something a bit more grounded, such as ToFarm Film Festival's Paglipay. From this subset of films comes a real gem from Alvin Yapan's Oro, perhaps his best since Ang Sayaw ng Dalawang Kaliwang Paa, whose social injustices are rooted in real and tragic events.

Other films are notable to me for just one particular aspect. In a world where films based on medicine end up horribly inaccurate (even those from Hollywood), Vilma Santos starrer Everything About Her ends up as one of this year's best researched films, foreign or local, in terms of medical care. For the unique way it presented itself visually, I found Cinefilipino's Buhay Habangbuhay immensely interesting.

Philippine Cinema 2016: The Weakest Links

I find myself generally charitable towards local films, even the really bad ones. I also almost never walk out of movies because I know I want to give it a chance. But this year one really bad stinker got me. It's the first and only time this year I've walked out of a film. The distinction goes to the three hour director's cut of Ligaw. It's the kind of film that denies you any sort of satisfaction. I left the theater ragged and tired as hell.

But that's not the only film that tired me out this year. I prayed that Gil Portes' Ang Hapis at Himagsik ni Hermano Puli would be good even in some minor way. In this case, God didn't listen to my prayers. My friends who were with me during the Cinemalaya premiere slept through most of the film, and I think they were the lucky ones. At least I found this movie hilarious, in all the wrong ways.

To complete the trifecta of badness, we go to the most entertaining entry in this year's worst list: Enteng Kabisote 10 and the Abangers. I admit being entertained by this film, but only through interpreting it as a self reflexive criticism of itself. It is the embodiment of the commercialism and decay that the film industry has gone through, commodifying cheap distraction for money.

There's a large number of films that I wish I could have seen this year such as Upline Downline, but alas, those things disappear quite easily.

Speaking of things that are funny, let's speak about jokes that are not funny at all. The most unfunny joke of 2016 in Philippine Cinema goes to the FAMAS awards, which, as an award giving body has lost all of its credibility (to be fair, this might have happened a long time ago.) To give one glaring example, this is an awards giving body that gave this year's best special effects award to Angela Markado a film whose special effects would be bad even in 1995:

this is the FAMAS best special effects winner. You daft bastards

That's it for local cinema. This time it's time for the rest of the world.

Rest of the World: The Hollywood Capitalist Machine

Meanwhile, in Hollywood, executives and corporations polished their latest finely tuned product to consumer perfection. No genre has filled our consciousnesses more in the past decade or so than the superhero genre, and it's Disney (tm) Marvel (tm)'s Captain America: Civil War that wins my favorite superhero film of the year. It's fun, it's exciting, its a wild ride, if not a bit safe.

On the other side of the fence, Warner Brothers was trying to copy this formula to rather disastrous results. I did not enjoy Batman v Superman at all (the extended cut was a bit better) and although I liked Suicide Squad, its tone was more schizophrenic than its most deranged characters.

It's not a problem just inherent with Warner Brothers. Remakes, reboots and sequels all got shafted hard this year, from Ghostbusters to Independence Day: Resurgence. All in all, 2016 was a pretty shitty time to be a big blockbuster franchise film.

One franchise celebrated its 50th anniversary with a whimper this year: Star Trek, my most beloved science fiction franchise. Star Trek Beyond is not a bad movie in any sense, but the marketing that accompanied this movie was almost non-existent at points, leaving a disappointing box office take. It still remains my favorite of the reboot films.

We end this year with Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, which is definitely enjoyable, but shows me the cracks that are forming with Hollywood and its blockbusters. So many of these films depend on intertextuality so much that without the intertextual reference, the movie falls apart - and that's what I see with Rogue One, which would not have worked even half as well without A New Hope. While it gets a pass thanks to the way it complements A New Hope, its a dangerous precedent for films to come in the future.

Hollywood has brought out some interesting original content this year, mostly during the Oscar season. Examples of this for 2016 include Lenny Abrahamson's Room, and Spotlight, which eventually took the Academy Award for Best Picture.

In terms of animation,  Disney had competition from films like Kubo and the Two Strings, which is a phenomenal achievement in animation, even though its story is very basic, My favorite Disney/Pixar film this year is Moana, a charming little film with progressive ideals, honed by years of prototype films in the same mold.

(as an aside Zootopia honestly did nothing for me don't kill me guyz)

Rest of the World: Asian and World Cinema
I really don't have the chops to tell you about World Cinema this year, as I haven't seen some of this year's best films in World Cinema, including Best Foreign Film winner Son of Saul, postcolonial narrative Embrace of the Serpent or any of the films Isabelle Huppert starred in this year.

I have seen a bunch of other films from around the world, mostly in Japan and Korea, so I guess I'll talk about those instead. I promise to watch more world cinema next year.

hehe.

Some really interesting foreign films seen during film festivals include Taiwanese drama The Kids, and from this year's Eiga Sai, Hirokazu Kore-eda's My Little Sister, as slice of life as you can get with these dramas, and 2014's Pale Moon, a dark look at capitalist excess in the bubble era of Japan's economy. But none have been as impactful for me as this year's Palm D'Or Winner, Ken Loach's I, Daniel Blake, whose issues have sparked discourse in its home country.

This year I had the privilege of seeing films abroad. Hollywood superhero films have a Japanese cousin - the manga adaptation - and my favorite manga adaptation was this year's Chihayafuru (parts 1 and 2,) which I saw in Tokyo last June. It's not completely faithful to the source material but it does have some interesting moments and a great performance from teen actress Suzu Hirose, who seems to be in demand right now.

Quite fortuitously, one of Suzu Hirose's other films finds a spot among my favorite films of 2016. While a lot of people may find the melodramatic last sequence of Lee Sang-il's Rage problematic, I though it was a nice end to an unforgettable, emotionally draining film, probably Lee's best since 2010's Akunin.

Genre films also had their day this year. For horror fanatics, The VVitch was an interesting watch and a phenomenal first film. Korea also had their own share of horror movies in top form, such as Na Hong-jin's The Wailing, as well as this year's runaway blockbuster Train to Busan, mixing both social relevance and good old zombie action.

Kaiju films had their heyday with Hideaki Anno's Godzilla Resurgence, which follows the 1985 and 1954 films in tone, reinventing Godzilla and the Kaiju genre for modern times.

Of course, as a fanboy of director Park Chan-wook, his latest, The Handmaiden, showed Park in a return to form, in what is probably my favorite film of his after the Vengeance Trilogy.

And finally, there's the rare film that I watch and I get this feeling of magic, and the sheer joy of watching movies fills me up. It's a feeling that I haven't felt in a long time, but this year I've been lucky to experience such a film once again in the form of Makoto Shinkai's Your Name. Given how it has demolished box office records in its home country, it might come off as a little overhyped, but in my opinion, not overrated. Your Name isn't just a good anime film, it's a great film, period, and its films like these that remind me why I love doing this shit so much.

Treasure the moment; Dreams fade away when you wake up.
Eleven years and counting, guys. Next year is going to be the centennial anniversary of Philippine Cinema and a new year for the cinema of the world. This is me, signing off for 2016, and as always, see you bastards at the movies.

Tuesday, December 27, 2016

MMFF 2016 Festival Report, Part 2

Today, we'll be talking about the remaining two films and most of the shorts. Because the schedule was incredibly tight, I only got to see six out of eight short films. Sometimes they would show the shorts well before the advertised screening time, so by the time we got to the cinema, they were done.

Kabisera refers to the seat at the head of the table, usually occupied by the head of the family. It tackles the issue of extrajudicial killings. When Mercy, (Nora Aunor), a loving housewife, sees her family fall victim to a rash of these killings, she begins the long road towards justice.

The film takes its time to get to this point. The first half of the movie establishes the family order, but it takes too long and it feels too staged at times. Nora Aunor is brilliant as always but the script doesn't take full advantage of her talents here.

Mercy's road towards justice is one that is difficult because she is fighting a system that is rigged against her. She is used by people from both sides, mostly for personal gain. Allies become opportunists, traitors become victims themselves.

There is also a sense of ambiguity with respect to the victims: we never really do learn if the allegations against them were true. The movie makes it a point to say that regardless of the eventual legal outcome, people have the right to due process. That's a lesson that is getting harder and harder to learn these days, with our propensity to dehumanize people we perceive as criminals.

I have a lot of problems with the way Kabisera was presented, but its themes are relevant today and probably in the years to come. 

The first Ang Babae sa Septic Tank poked fun at independent cinema as a whole. While that film tended to generalize a bit (poverty films are not the entirety of independent cinema) it was fun in the way it played at different genres. Plus, it was really funny. This second installment purportedly tackles the rom-com genre. While I don't think it was as successful in that regard, Ang Babae Sa Septic Tank 2 does address something else comparatively well - preserving the integrity of an artist's vision. Overall I liked it, but with a few reservations.

It's been 4 years since the events of the first movie, and Rainier (Kean Cipriano) is in the process of making a new film, a melancholic romantic story. He meets with Eugene Domingo to discuss the possibility of starring in this film, and she begins to transform the movie into something more mainstream and formulaic.

There are some funny moments in this film, notably a small role by Joel Torre that almost steals the show and a hilarious final sequence. But it does take a really long while to get there. The first half of Septic Tank 2 is quite uneven. Unlike the first film that builds up its inevitable meeting with Eugene Domingo to something genuinely funny, this film really doesn't find its comedic touch until the second half. Much of the film up to that point consists of filler. There's a bit of meta that parallels Rainier's original script and his own troubled relationship with his wife, but it is superficial at best.

The film's parody of rom-com elements is just as superficial, though entertaining. But for me, the hidden point of Ang Babae sa Septic Tank 2 is the conversation it makes regarding how an artist is truly (not) independent given the state of the movie industry today. Yes, like the first film, Ang Babae Sa Septic Tank 2 is a stealth parody of independent filmmaking. 

I remember a Q and A session during a screening of Jun Lana's Barber's Tales where Eugene Domingo told the audience that she was taking a break from doing independent films because she felt disappointed that people were not patronizing these quality films. It may have been partly in jest, but a similar conversation appears by the end of this movie. It's a conversation on the age-old argument between artistic freedom and commercial viability. This is a conversation with questions that do not have easy answers, because movies cost money and money has to come from somewhere. 

In the context of the MMFF, the industry has decided to embark on a ballsy experiment to offer something new to audiences conditioned to consume the same old shit every year. In a way, it has worked. The MMFF has gone from being a joke, a 'safe' festival whose family friendly moniker is a farce to a genuinely good festival, probably the best in terms of quality this 2016. It is no small feat. It just takes time for people to warm up to change, but it will come as long as people persist towards achieving it.

We're on our way towards a cinematic culture that respects artistic freedom and originality, but this year's MMFF is but one small step. The road to this ideal is long and winding, and it isn't easy. But this year's festival is rebellion personified. It shows us hope for this ideal, and like Rogue One taught us, rebellions are built on hope.

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We Want Short Shorts Short Shorts Reviews MMFF 2016 edition

Each feature film is accompanied by a short film that is similar to it thematically or through some other fashion. Some are student films, while others are shorts directed by experienced filmmakers. I wasn't able to see the shorts before Oro and Seklusyon.

Sunday Beauty Queen is preceded by Birds, also a tale about Filipino workers in a foreign land. There's a bit of metaphor going on with birds living in a gilded cage. It's overall ok.

Animated film Passage of Life precedes Saving Sally. It's a concept that we've seen in many other student films and memes on, say, 9gag or Facebook, but it's no less touching.

Avid Liongoren's animated short Momo and Vince and Kath and James don't really have much in common except that they're both cute. Momo deals with a girl and her dog, and her search for said dog once the dog goes missing.

Animated short Mitatang precedes Die Beautiful. It's also nice, though a bit unremarkable compared to the other shorts.

Kabisera is preceded by (not surprisingly) EJK, directed by Bor Ocampo of Dayang Asu fame. It's darkly funny without being offensive or too insensitive towards its subject matter. It's my favorite out of all the short films.

And finally before Ang Babae Sa Septic Tank 2 is Manila Scream, based on Edvard Munch's painting of the same name. All I can say is 1) masakit yan sa panga dude and 2) AAAAAHHHHHHHHHHH

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That's about it for MMFF 2016. All of the films have something in them worth watching, so take a look at all of them and watch what matches your tastes! See you guys at the end of the year.

Monday, December 26, 2016

MMFF 2016 Festival Report, Part 1

Ladies and gentlemen, it's time for that most wonderful time of the year, Christmas, and with it, the Metro Manila Film Festival. After the mess that happened last year, the festival has gone through a complete overhaul. So far I've seen six of the eight films featured, and I have to say I haven't been disappointed yet. Overall this one of the most consistent festivals this year in terms of output. So how did each movie fare?

Sunday Beauty Queen, the first documentary in MMFF history, is probably my favorite film of the festival so far. It tells the stories of a number of domestic helpers working in Hong Kong. The work is definitely hard. Most work six days of continuous labor, often living in with their employers in less than ideal conditions. Domestic helpers who have their own place to live do exist, but are the exception rather than the rule. Sunday is often their day of respite, albeit with a strict curfew - and yet many spend their time engaging in beauty pageants.

The documentary shows both sides, good and bad with regards to stories of employment; we see domestic helpers who have truly bonded with the family they serve, and at times we see helpers stuck in limbo at a halfway house that helps those who have been terminated for some reason or another. These helpers become surrogate parents, caretakers, crutches and confidants. In a way, we serve as the backbone of these economies; we work for these people so that they can focus on their work. 

And often this work for others leads to something bittersweet and moving. While one child has someone who walks him to school, we see a mother watching her child's graduation through a patchy cellphone signal. While one child has someone feeding her home cooked meals everyday, we have another parent struggling to send a package back home. It's certainly not normal, and it's part of the strange relationship of employer and employee that has emerged over the years.

The beauty pageants serve as their escape, a place where they can truly celebrate being themselves. This is their Cinderella moment - that one short time when Cinderella's gown shines and a horse and carriage await her. And in a way, it's a display of the spirit of these people who have sacrificed so much just to give their loved ones a better life.

I've been waiting for Saving Sally for the longest time, and although its premise is pretty conventional, I think it was worth the wait.

Marty is a comicbook artist. He falls in love with Sally, a spunky inventor type. Marty is a huge beta male who can't confess his feelings. Whatever will he do?

The premise is something you've probably heard before in some other form, but the difference with Saving Sally is that it's presented in such a neat visual package. The world of Saving Sally is populated by monsters, steampunk-ish elements, pirates and all kinds of imaginative things. It's not a stretch to call this film a landmark achievement in local animation, following the heels of recent films such as Manang Biring.

There are also some nice geeky touches in the film. The universal greeting and identifier for all geeks is a geeky pop culture reference, and this film has it in spades. It's quirky and nice without being too annoying for its own good.

The film does end a bit abruptly for my taste, resolving a lot of its plot elements during the end credits. An after credits scene, however, becomes the highlight of the film, as it nicely encapsulates the story and its themes for us one last time. Saving Sally is not perfect, but it oozes with charm and it pushes the boundaries of what we can do with the animated medium.

We now shift into dramatic territory with Alvin Yapan's Oro. It's about a small community of miners in the Caramoan islands. Soon, their mining operation is placed under threat when a group of armed men take over and cause trouble for the population at large.

Much of the movie is filmed at a Dutch angle, often used to indicate an imbalance, tension and uneasiness - and the whole film soon seems like a bomb rigged to explode. But it replaces release with a bit of melodrama, something that didn't sit well with me at first.

The villagers find themselves subjected to different kinds of oppression under the threat of a gun. Oppression breeds rebellion, and I was half expecting the villagers to come out in open revolt against these people. But instead, many are helpless to do anything about it, and the end result may prove frustrating for those wanting to see some sort of retribution. 

I think, in some respects, the movie puts the onus on us to do something about these systems abused for the sake of oppression. It wants us to feel these injustices and act against it by denying us any sort of catharsis. For that alone, these narrative decisions work overall for me, and I think Oro for the most part does its job.

We now come to the requisite Star Cinema rom com, Vince and Kath and James. Though the story is pretty conventional and mostly sticks to formula, the movie has moments that are genuinely charming and cute, and is buoyed by good performances by the three main actors.

The film plays out like a weird 21st century Cyrano de Bergerac where Vince (Joshua Garcia) plays matchmaker with his friend Kath (Julia Barettto) and his alpha male cousin James (Ronnie Alonte.) Vince falls in love with Kath and plot ensues.

The leads are pretty charming and they have interesting chemistry together, thanks to a decent script. Joshua Garcia in particular really gives a great performance here, and I think the kid has a bright future ahead of him.

The film does deal with a few gender stereotypes with engineers - like why do the male OJT students do the grunt work while the females act as glorified secretaries? The film, to its credit, makes it a point to show that Kath is just as capable, if not more so, compared to the other students. The film's last part is kind of clunky as it tries to adhere to the formula, but it's not a big hit to the overall experience.

This film is the lightest of all 8 films so far, and it's actually quite nice. It's evidence that you don't have to be a gritty socially focused "indie" (this term has lost all its meaning to me) to get in the festival - all you need is a good film.

What makes a life meaningful? Is it the things you've accomplished in life, the things you achieve after it, or both? Die Beautiful examines the life of Trisha, a transgender woman who suddenly died after she suddenly dies after winning a beauty pageant. The timeline is loosely connected, jumping from past to present, each jump providing another glimpse into Trisha's life and legacy.

As more and more mourners and well wishers join Trisha during her wake, we learn that the path she has taken has not been easy. Because of who she is, she has endured both emotional abuse and sexual violence. She is treated as a sideshow by some, a curiosity at best by others. Her own family disowns her, never quite accepting of her life decisions even in death.

But her mere presence has changed the lives of so many people, and you see that in the way her life was celebrated by those who truly loved her as a person. Paolo Ballesteros radiates in this film as Trisha, giving us an award winning, unforgettable performance. The film's loose structure may not have worked without the performance to tie it all together.

A life well lived is a life well spent, and in the end Trisha sets out what she wants to do in life, doing the things she loved and being the person she wants to be. It's almost like a picture perfect answer to a beauty pageant question.

And finally we come to Seklusyon, this year's sole entry to the MMFF. While the story can easily be interpreted as a horror film warning us about the dangers of blind faith, its subtext stands out as the scariest thing  I've seen in years, because it rings true with regards to events that have happened to our country (and the world for that matter) for the past year or so.

Set after WWII, four deacons go to a secluded place to spend a few days in seclusion before they are ordained as priests. At the same time, a priest investigates a number of mysterious occurrences with a nun and a girl who can perform miracles.

Some of the best horror flicks out there, such as this year's The Wailing, are scary not because the evil is overt, but because it's difficult to see what is truly evil or not. It's hard to fight against supernatural evil, but harder to fight against ourselves justifying it as something good.

That's where Seklusyon draws its power - not in its jump scares or its darkly lit frames - it's in the darkness of our own selves, that we'd rather accept a convenient evil rather than an inconvenient good. And its scary because looking at the world right now, it's true. And the people who have embraced these false prophets will convince you that their cause is right and just, and you might just start to believe them.

The film sometimes ends up too dark to see anything, though this may be a projection problem rather than something intentional (the trailers were relatively well-lit in comparison.) The film does end a bit abruptly, but follows its concepts to the bloody end. Seklusyon continues Erik Matti's examination of faith, power and corruption from his earlier works. It's interesting to consider where he'll take it from here.


Friday, December 23, 2016

Cinephilia on the Go (Extra Time): Death Note, Long Excuses and more

Before we dive in head on to the MMFF and the end of the year, let's take a look at a number of movies I saw during another trip to HK.

Death Note ended conclusively, whether it be the anime, manga, or the live action adaptation. But, probably thanks to a recent live action TV series, the franchise has risen from the dead, and a new live action film, Death Note: Light up the New world has shown up to cash in on the action.

However, the new movie has little to nothing to do continuity-wise with the live action series; instead, it's based on the continuity of the first two live action movies, Death Note and Death Note: The Last Name, while ignoring the events of the previous spinoff movie, L Change the World. The ending of that series of movies was quite interesting, as it diverged from the manga in a major way after its first half, making it the most fertile land for a sequel. This fact, however, has its own share of problems.

The movie is based on an obscure rule in the original anime and manga that states that only six death notes can work in the human world at any one time. 10 years have passed since the events of The Last Name, and a number of Death Notes have found themselves on earth once again. Almost immediately after, two factions emerge: one that seeks to collect all the Death Notes and keep them away forever, rendering any additional notes useless, and one that seeks to collect all the Death Notes to continue the legacy of the old Kira and discover the identity of the mysterious new Kira.

A number of characters from the original live action movie series return here (played by the same actors), and they are joined by a cast of new characters made exclusively for this sequel. The new characters, which include the successor to L (Sousuke Ikematsu) and a cyberterrorist (Masaki Suda) allied with the pro-Kira forces.

There's a bit of entertainment in keeping track of which faction has which Death Note, and whether Light Yagami is truly alive or not, but that's as far as the movie goes as far as entertainment value is concerned. The whole production feels like mid-tier fan fiction to be honest. None of the new characters are as interesting as the old ones, and the psychological battles that defined the original series are gone. On the other hand, this story is not without its own set of twists at the end. When all is said and done, it feels like a sequel that didn't need to be told.

Death Note: Light up the New world is occasionally fun, but it ultimately amounts to a momentary distraction. It's like getting one more serving of food when you're already full - regardless of the taste of the food, you really don't feel like eating anymore.

When Sachio (Masahiro Motoki of Departures fame) learns that his wife has died, he has trouble processing the emotions that come with it. There wasn't really any spark between the two, and their marriage had been loveless up to that point. He pretends to be sorrowful, waxing poetic and crying on cue. He encounters a truck driver, Yoichi, who is truly devastated by his wife's loss. Learning that his wife and Yoichi's wife were friends, Sachio arranges to help take care of Yoichi's two children to learn about the process of grieving.

Miwa Nishikawa's Nagai Iiwake (The Long Excuse) follows the themes of her previous films Dreams for Sale and Dear Doctor, in which complex characters deceive and live elaborate lies for the sake of themselves and of others. It's a languidly paced character study that finds moments of levity in its more audacious moments. Sachio begins to connect emotionally with the two children, having had no such connection in his previous life. Though he is surrounded by fans of his work as a writer and co-workers, he hasn't had a lasting emotional connection, even with his wife.

Sachio deals with this guilt in different ways. He ends up being attached to Yoichi's family, depending on them as a sort of emotional crutch. And when there's a threat that this crutch is going to be taken away, he predictably lashes out. These dramatic moments are furthered by excellent acting from all of the ensemble cast, and commendations go to the child actors, whose performance rival anything by their adult co-actors in this film.

The film is quite slow, but it does draw you in. The Long Excuse ends up as a highly emotionally textured examination of its characters, allowing us a look through the process of their own pain and loss.

To call Shuichi Okita's Mohican Comes Home as offbeat is a bit of an understatement. When rocker Eikichi (Ryuhei Matsuda) decides to return to his hometown, a sleepy island village in Hiroshima, he runs across his father, who works as some sort of music teacher at the local school. When his father begins to suffer from some health problems, Eikichi decides to take care of him while he figures out what to do with his life.

Mohican Comes Home is structured very loosely; much of the plot described above doesn't really kick in until the last half of the film. Before that, it seems like its trying to decide what kind of movie it wants to be. At times it seems like it's going to be one of those inspirational movies about perfecting a craft, but no luck there. It tries to be a more serious family drama, but it ends up laughing at itself.

The film is flavored with its own distinct kind of deadpan humor that's almost bipolar in nature. At times the jokes play themselves straight, at other times it devolves into something akin to screwball comedy. One particular scene at the end is a prime example of how weird the movie takes us.

At times the whole thing becomes a little too distracting, a little too loose. In finding its father-son narrative only during the last thirty or so minutes of the film, the film lost me. Once moments started becoming profound, I had long given up on the film. That's kind of a shame, as the last half hour or so has a few really nice moments between these two characters. I was laughing at the absurdity of it all, but feeling empty towards the overall experience.

Feng Xiaogang's I Am Not Madame Bovary plays an interesting trick on its viewers, and the endpoint of that trick makes its themes even more relevant. It's almost structured like a fairy tale with a moral lesson at the end.

Much like this year's I, Daniel Blake, I Am Not Madame Bovary pits its character against the bureaucracy of a national government, although this time, the treatment is different. Rather than just being obstinate, the officials of the Chinese government try to muffle our protagonist's voice in a bid to save their own skins. But Xuelian (played by Fan Bingbing in top form) herself is a force to be reckoned with, her cause backed up by dogged, almost superhuman persistence. Her small dispute (a divorce case that proves far more complicated than usual) turns into a yearly pain in the ass for local officials who are either confused, unwilling or unable to hear her case out.

The film is presented as a comedy, showing how the government bumbles its way towards finding a solution to this legal clusterfuck of epic proportions. Like the government, we are baffled at the absurdity of Xuelian's claim, unable to find context in her situation. We don't know why exactly is she putting so much effort into what seems like a futile case. We laugh as we see government officials sacked over their ineptitude to address her condition, though by all means their view of the case is legally in the right as far as we know.

Visually, the film keeps the action in a very tight circular frame, echoing traditional Chinese art, at the same time giving most of the film a voyeuristic treatment, distancing our characters as if through the lens of a telescope. At times the frame opens up once Xuelian reaches Beijing, but not by much.

It's only during the final ten minutes, when the frame opens up fully, that the trick is revealed, and context is given regarding Xuelian's situation. And we realize that, like the government officials, we are as guilty of judging Xuelian as they were. That's the point the movie tries to make, I think: that an effective government needs the nuance to understand its citizens than being held back by rigid dogma and protocol. And that ends up making the film very effective in its message.

Watching the 2016 documentary Weiner is like watching a burning train crash and derail. This is especially in light of recent scandalous evidence pointing to the fact Anthony Weiner STILL hasn't stopped sexting various women, and the fact that this latest round of evidence has finally caused his separation with longtime Clinton aide Huma Abedin.

Since the title of this film literally begs for it, I shall endeavor to include as many dick references as I can in this review. Weiner is about a man who can't get his hands off his dick. While he was still a somewhat respectable congressman, he had a reputation for going hard against the GOP and fighting for the common man. Unfortunately, a number of scandals killed off that hard-on pretty quick. The movie covers his campaign to run for mayor of New York in 2013, when suddenly even more damning evidence surfaces and embroils him in a new political scandal.

A lot of the film is as uncomfortable as getting your dick stuck in a zipper, as we see Weiner commit one political gaffe after another. But it's hard to feel sorry for the guy since you know how much of a dick he is. I felt even worse for Huma Abedin, who stayed by him for much of his mayoral campaign.  The fly on the wall treatment is very intimate to the point of being uncomfortable.

It's kind of a bummer seeing your campaign, which you worked long and hard for, be turned into a lame duck, but there's a bit of fascination that plays into it, and much of it was Weiner's fault anyway. Much of the film's entertainment comes from the schadenfreude and cringe that we experience as we see Weiner's campaign go limp. The moments of political double talk as Weiner tries to PR and damage control his way out of the situation, working the shaft of the media at large, are also entertaining.

With Weiner's political career dead in the water, It's unlikely we'll be seeing him in the near future. But people like Weiner find a way to rise again somehow, so a political comeback in some sort of fashion isn't too far fetched.

And finally, I watched Makoto Shinkai's Kimi no na wa (Your name) again in theaters here (this is the fourth rewatch; I've since seen it again a fifth time in local cinemas). I've said my piece about this lovely film here. Interestingly, the translation for the Hong Kong release of the film and the local Philippine release are slightly different. For instance, the HK version translates some of the song lyrics, while the Philippine release doesn't bother.

If you haven't watched this film in theaters yet, do yourself a favor and watch this film. It's probably one of the few films out now in theaters that I found worth watching more than once. Once MMFF comes along, there's a good chance this film will not come back to theaters once the festival is finished, making the next two or so days the last chance you will ever have to watch this film in a proper theater. 



Up next is the Metro Manila Film Festival and its repertoire of eight films, as well as the traditional end of the year round up. Stay tuned.

Friday, December 16, 2016

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story

There's a scene in Rogue One: A Star Wars Story where one of the characters begins saying a line familiar to many fans of the franchise, perhaps in an attempt at invoking the main series of films. But in a rare moment of self consciousness, the other characters in the scene shut him down. In a way, it mirrors what Rogue One tries to be as a film: something distinct from the previous seven films, while paying respects to said films at the same time. The result is an enjoyable experience, if a bit calculated at points.

The film bridges the gap between the prequel and original trilogies, telling the story of how the Death Star schematics, crucial to the plot of Episode IV, got into the hands of the rebel alliance. The story knows its way around Star Wars' extensive lore, and director Gareth Edwards manages to craft a narrative that pays tribute to both trilogies, featuring characters from both, even giving a few tributes to plot points in George Lucas' original script for Episode IV(!).

It's all thanks to the filmmakers, who are for all intents and purposes, ascended fans, thus making this movie the ultimate fan film. This movie is an example of how fans of a series can give back to it by creating something new, shaped by their intimate knowledge and understanding of their fandom. These callbacks help the film ease into the larger picture of the Star Wars universe, but at times you feel that the notion of the larger universe becomes a crutch instead of just a guide.

No Star Wars film is incomplete without elaborate, exciting action setpieces, and Rogue One delivers in spades. The climax of the movie, where Rebel and Imperial forces face off on a coastal planet, ends up even better than the climax of last year's The Force Awakens, simply because we feel a sense of urgency and tension, despite the fact that we generally know how the story is going to pan out. In a general sense, there's excitement to be found here.

The performances of the cast are all solid. Alan Tudyk's K2-SO is sure to delight audiences, and the characters of Baze Malbus and Chirrut Imwe, played by Jiang Wen and Donnie Yen respectively, are in my opinion one of the best things about the movie.

That said, we come to know little about the new characters populating the story of Rogue One, other than heroine Jyn Erso. Even then, Jyn's depiction in the actual movie is far different than what we see in the trailer - instead of a confident, brash, almost incorrigible rebel, we get a reluctant fighter who finds herself sucked into a galactic conflict she would rather avoid. (Another reason why we should never ever judge a movie by its trailer.) While the other characters have distinct personalities, we don't really get to know any of them intimately. It would have been nice to see this band grow together as friends, but unfortunately stories have to be told and we are dragged along with the characters through to the inevitable conclusion.

Characters from the original and prequel trilogies show up either as actual supporting performances, cameos, or as motion capture CGI. The latter seems to operate similar to the technology used during the end of Episode III, and also during Disney/Marvel's Captain America: Civil War. While to some the CGI seems passable enough to be unnoticeable, to me the images crossed the Uncanny Valley a number of times.

Most notable among this film's guest performances is Darth Vader, voiced once again by James Earl Jones. While his scenes in this film are short, they are effective (especially one sequence near the end that is pure awesome), and Vader himself exudes a menace that I haven't seen since The Empire Strikes Back.

All in all, Rogue One is a flawed but immensely fun, action packed ride that only makes the wait for next year's Episode VIII all the more excruciating. December 2017 cannot come soon enough.